From Scientific American
As the Olympic Games open in the land where it all began, it is both fitting and delightful to sit down with this beautiful, informative book. Miller, an archaeologist and professor of classics at the University of California at Berkeley, brings the ancient Greek athletic festivals to life by reconstructing the scene at one of the Panhellenic games and explores broader themes such as the integral role they played in society and politics. For almost 12 centuries, beginning in 776 B.C. at Olympia in the Peloponnese (not at Mount Olympus, as one often hears), the games were so popular that nothing was allowed to stand in the way; even battles were temporarily halted in deference to the athletic competition. Olympia was the site of only one of four major contests; the others were at Delphi, Isthmia and Nemea. The closest visual link to the classic athletic festivals comes from paintings on amphoras, huge vessels that held as much as 39 liters of olive oil. These were offered as prizes at the games; one side depicted the event for which the prize was given. Modern fans would find other striking differences between today's contests and the original games: There were no second-place prizes--you won or you lost. There were no team sports. Fouls were punished by flogging. Athletes performed nude. By the fourth century A.D., with the spread of Christianity and the waning of belief in the Greek gods, the games "ceased completely to play any meaningful role in society." They were revived in something resembling their modern form in 1896.
Editors of Scientific American
This exhaustive survey by a Berkeley archeologist covers not only the Olympic Games but the related festivals at Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea (where Miller is in charge of excavations), and uses evidence from vase painting, statuary, and the remains of ancient stadiums to elucidate such details as halteres (special weights used by long jumpers) and the hysplex, a complicated gate intended to prevent false starts. By our standards, many of the events were brutal; an unfortunate boxer named Kreugas had his intestines ripped out in a bout at Nemea. But Miller identifies a specifically Greek ideal in the fact that the athletes, regardless of social standing, competed on equal footing and would even submit to flogging if they fouled. This is a far cry from the behavior of the Roman Emperor Nero, who breezed through Greece in A.D. 67, winning some eleven hundred events; at Olympia, he fell out of his chariot and failed to finish the race but was still awarded the victory crown.
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